Biomedical Library copy has on spine: S.C.A.E.S. 1860
February 23, 2007
A Gentleman much attached to the Study of Natural History
In 1848 Robert Ellis approached the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge with a proposal to write a ‘Chemical History of Vegetation’. The Society ‘Read a letter from Mr. Robt. Ellis offering to write a book or a series of books upon subjects connected with Natural History and Philosophy. Mr. Ellis forwarded a prospectus of a work “The Life of a Tree,” together with Specimens of Articles written by him and published in Chambers’ Edinburgh Magazine. / Mr. Ellis’s prospectus was approved and it was Agreed That he be encouraged to proceed with the proposed work.’ The work eventually published by the S.P.C.K. in 1850 was The Chemistry of Creation: being an outline of the chemistries of the earth, the air, the ocean, etc. In May of that year Ellis had written to the photographic pioneer W.H. Fox Talbot about the possibility of including ‘Talbotype’ (or Calotype) illustrations ‘as an aid to the faithful representation of Geological structure’ in his book. It seems, though, that the SPCK was unwilling to pay Fox Talbot for a licence, and Ellis’s book appeared with line drawings and engravings.
In 1852 Robert Ellis published Disease in Childhood, its common causes and directions for its practical management. It was dedicated ‘To the Rev. Sir H.R. Dukinfield, Bart., Chairman of the Committee of the Hospital for Sick Children in admiration of his long-continued and successful labours in the cause of neglected and suffering humanity [...] by his obliged friend, The Author’. During the 1860s The Lancet carried Ellis’s study of ‘the effects of railway travelling upon uterine diseases’ and several defences of his innovative obstetric surgical devices and procedures. In 1866 there appeared a treatise On the Safe Abolition of Pain in Labour and Surgical Operations. Robert Ellis, sometime Fellow of the Linnean Society, Surgeon to the National Society’s Training Institution for Schoolmistresses and to the Hans Town Industrial School, was obviously more than a mere sawbones.
On the strength of the polymathic Chemistry of Creation, the Royal Commissioners had appointed Robert Ellis as scientific editor of the Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition 1851, though he was only in his late twenties. Ellis provided a general preface to the Catalogue, offering ‘a simple statement of the part fulfilled by the writer in connection with this work’. The material had been compiled from official forms returned by exhibitors (coloured according to their classification into Sculpture and Fine Art, Raw Materials, Machinery and Manufactures). Ellis’s role had been ‘the general literary and scientific superintendence and management of the work [...] and for these he may be held responsible.’ He regarded the work as a contribution in the great tradition of English scientific and mercantile coadjutation. ‘In the seventeenth century,’ he wrote in a section describing the ‘Scientific Revision and Preparation of the Catalogue’, ‘ROBERT BOYLE perceived the important results likely to arise from the “naturalist’s insight into trades.” It may be hoped that such results will not now fail of their accomplishment.’ Ruefully, however, Robert Ellis had to accept that
At the period when this work makes its appearance in a complete state, the Exhibition is about to close. The first function of a Descriptive Catalogue can therefore scarcely be fulfilled ere the great spectacle it illustrates will pass away. To these wonders of Art and Industry which Man, taught by God, has been by Him enabled to accomplish, it will prove a guide but for a brief period. But its more permanently valuable offices then commence; and it may be reasonably hoped that, as a record of the most varied and wonderful collection of objects ever beheld, and as book of reference to the philosopher, merchant and manufacturer, it will constantly prove both interesting and instructive to the reader.
In his work on the Catalogue, Ellis was assisted by a team of twenty-five ‘annotators’, headed by the eminent Professor Richard Owen, F.R.S., and Baron Justus Liebig, F.R.S., and no fewer than eleven other Fellows of the Royal Society. Ellis himself was a mere F.L.S. - Fellow of the Linnean Society. As ‘Robert Ellis Esq. Member of the Royal College of Surgeons, 63 Sloane Street, a Gentleman much attached to the Study of Natural History,’ he had been elected to the Society on 5 November 1850. In 1852 the title-page of Disease in Childhood continued to describe its author as Robert Ellis, F.L.S., but curiously his name ceased to appear in the List of Fellows of the Linnean Society published in 1855 - it seems he had withdrawn from Fellowship in 1854, coincidentally the year in which Charles Darwin joined it.
From my article: 'Faithful, all too faithful' - a study of William Ashton Ellis (1852-1919, Robert Ellis's son), English translator and biographer of Richard Wagner. Please acknowledge source.